Yangon to Luang Prabang

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We found this message from Yangon Airlines minimally reassuring, but since it was number 10 or 11 of the 17 flights we will have taken by the time our trip is over we just shrugged and said, “Whatever.”

We were sad to leave Myanmar. The experience was in every way magical, interesting, provacative, beautiful and inspirational. These people of gentle spirit and burgeoning optimism reminded us that somewhere in the world things are getting better instead of getting worse. We left America during a particularly terrible time when our country’s penchant for violence and love of guns was yet again in the headlines. It was truly impossible to imagine that things would or could ever be different. Then we came here and saw that change, albeit gradual and in no way perfect, could in fact happen.

We came to Laos and this small city in particular because of Sam Brody. When our youngest son traveled in South East Asia around 5 years ago he emailed us from a place that was nothing more than name for us, “If I don’t come home look for me in Luang Prabang.” Fortunately he did come home, singing the praises of this uniquely charming (and not so easy to get to) place in the central hills of this landlocked country bordered by Thailand, Myanmar, China, Vietnam and Cambodia. Tragically known as the ‘most bombed country in the world’ during the years 1964 – 1973, Laos was the battleground of the ‘secret war’ waged between the United States and North Vietnam. It was the Hmong people, an independent minority tribe, who paid the biggest price. They worked for the US as a ‘secret army’ with promises of protection against the Communists whom they mistrusted. When we pulled out of Vietnam and left them undefended, thousands were killed and many more wounded. Our government eventually relocated some of the Hmong people – many to the United States – where they had an understandably difficult time assimilating. For a very good understanding of what these people faced in their new land I suggest reading Ann Fadiman’s excellent book The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down (http://www.amazon.com/Spirit-Catches-You-Fall-Down/dp/B004TE6DZ4).

Reports of Luang Prabang being a “haven for backpackers” are well founded:

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And yes, places for massage abound. The streets are lined with guest houses, small hotels, cafes and coffee houses.

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At times tourists seem to outnumber the locals and given Laos’ historical connection with France, we weren’t surprised to see bakeries offering tasty French pastries and good baguettes. French is a 2nd language here.

Both David and I were struck by how very much this town reminds us of New Orleans. Houses looking as if they were airlifted from the French Quarter line tree shaded streets. Flowers are everywhere you look.

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The air is perfumed with the aroma of frangipani and brightened with splashes of color from tropical plants totally foreign to me.

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Interspersed with the French-influenced buildings are beautiful teak houses one of which David pointed out could be ours.

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“Winters here and summers in Provincetown,” he mused. “Shall we call the kids and tell them to sell Waltham?”
“What about Pearl?” I asked.
“She’d love it here. Tell her to start flying.”
Enough about real estate. Let’s move on to food. Bountiful, appetizing and taken pretty seriously:

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The night market starts at five and takes over most of the long main street. Stalls selling beautiful hand crafts face stalls selling every imaginable kind of food. It was our most tempting encounter to eat street food…but we resisted.

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David is busy pecking away on his laptop detailing his thoughts on our first day in Luang Prabang. I am hoping that he will write about the two pagodas we visited as he will no doubt spell their names correctly and describe them in greater detail than I would. My take away photos are of the monk meticulously applying gold leaf to a temple undergoing restoration. In a series of repetitive and meditative moves he was like the ant taking one grain of sand at a time to the top of a mountain.

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I couldn’t help humming the theme to ‘Goldfinger’ as I walked away.
The other thing that caught my eye was what I call the ‘lounging Naga’ the monster spirit (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nāga) perched upon a niche containing a small Buddha statue.

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Don’t you think everyone should have one of these guarding their home?

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Our friend MaryAnn

Today I am going to write about our friend Mary Ann Marino. Mary Ann was a new friend. David and I met her for the first time last spring. I like to think of the chance to know Mary Ann as a gift from from our mutual friend and travel agent extraordinaire, Carol Pine. When we had expressed some concerns about spending two months in India Carol told us, “I have someone you absolutely must meet.” Since we always take Carol’s most excellent advice we promptly invited Mary Ann to dinner and from the moment she arrived we were totally captivated, not only by her quiet grace and inner and outer beautifully which radiated from her heart and lit up the room, but by the story she told us of her extended stay in India.
Carol had arraigned a trip there for Mary Ann a year or two before. Like many people she fell in love with both the country and the people and decided she wanted to go back and live and work there for a year. She made contact with a small startup company, volunteering to use her business background help them get up and running. Her other plan was to also volunteer in an orphanage. Mary Ann arrived in Hyderabad armed with a hotel reservation for one night along with the contact for her new job. Within a day she had rented an apartment, found an orphanage to work in and began making her friends – something she is exceeding good at. One special friend, Santha John, adopted Mary Ann as a sister and made her part of Santha’s vibrant extended family. Life was everything she had planned and hoped for. Six months into her stay Mary Ann got sick and Santha used her excellent connections to get her seen by Hyderabad’s best doctors. The news was grim. It was a brain tumor and Mary Ann needed immediate surgery. Not wanting to stay India for surgery and the treatment to follow Mary Ann made plans to return to Boston. Santha wouldn’t hear of her traveling along, so the two fairly new but very good friends made the long journey together.
The evening we met Mary Ann and she told us this story (our eyes wide and mouths agape in wonder and awe at her vitality and tremendously positive spirit), Mary Ann had been in remission for a year and was making plans to return to India as soon as possible.
Suddenly every worry we had ever entertained about our trip vanished as we reminded ourselves that the best kind of life is the one that you live as fully as you are able.
We were fortunate enough to spend time with Mary Ann over the summer and into the fall. She lives in a craft-style cottage in Hull. Her home and garden on the water, is as charmed and unique as its owner. We spent many hours talking about our upcoming trip, constantly reminding her that our rented house in Kochi had a guest room with a reservation in her name. Of course we didn’t know then that the cancer had returned and there was to be more surgery and more treatment in the coming months.
In the middle of November Mary Ann emailed to say that Santha was coming to Boston and there was to be a potluck supper in her honor to introduce her to ‘a few of her women friends.’ Twenty of so of us crowded into Mary Ann’s house and I had a chance to meet women from all parts of her life. She had touched so many of them in her quiet, yet profoundly personal way, that the house seemed to glow with the sort of energy only deep love can inspire. Mary Ann and Santha had spent days shopping and cooking and it was clear that while the results made both of them (and all of us) very happy, the effort had cost Mary Ann a great deal. The next day she had emergency surgery and remained hospitalized for more than a week. This is a scenario not well suited to a woman who has tremendous will and determination to keep moving and to stay in the game.
Her dear friend Jessie organized an email bulletin board to keep people up to date on Mary Ann’s condition. Since it was not a blind copy I counted more than 50 addresses that received the first message – and the number rose as word spread.
I was lucky enough to see Mary Ann several times before we left on our trip. I knew that I most likely would not see her when I returned in April. But we didn’t talk about that. We talked about India and chocolate and movies and books and food and cooking. We talked about friends and how friendship is a better gift than gold (but on a even par with chocolate).
I received word from Carol that Mary Ann died this morning after a peaceful night’s sleep. I know she was surrounded by friends who must be both relieved to see her suffering over, but heartbroken that she won’t be there to light up their lives.
What is left behind after someone like Mary Ann dies way too young? She had so many more things she wanted to accomplish and so many places she wanted to see. She was brave and intellectually curious, open and accepting, and one of the best people I’ve had the honor of knowing even for such a short time. Her passing is for me a reminder that life is short and time is precious. There are adventures to have and friends to make. Don’t waste a minute.

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David’s Take on Inle Lake

Thursday, January 24, 2013
Bagan to Inle Lake

Up at 5:30 am for a 6:30 am pickup for the flight to Heho, the airport closest to Inle Lake. The car fails to arrive at 6:30, or 6:35 or 6:45. Lora is pacing at the fear of missing the flight. I figure that the local travel agent is providing the driver, and of anyone, they are in the best position to fix their own screw-up. The driver finally shows up and we get to the airport 15 minutes before flight take-off. All is well.

Once we arrive in Heho, we drive an hour to a small town, Nyaung Shwe, and get dumped curbside next to a pavilion. We have no idea what’s going on until the driver and another man carry our bags across the pavilion to broad steps alongside a canal. In essence it is an aquatic equivalent of Grand Central Station. The driver deposits us in a long narrow boat (about 40’ x 4’) with an unmuffled 1-cylinder diesel at the stern — the Burmese version of the Thai long tail boat. Just the two of us as passengers, and we’re off down the canal and then to the other end of the lake, an hour’s ride, to the Shwe Inn Thar Hotel. It’s an idyllic group of bungalows built on stilts over the water. The boat ride and isolation of our floating bungalow are very romantic, but will be less so in a few days when we have to reverse the process at 6 am to get our flight out.

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Once we get settled in we see a sign in the room that suggests there will be a pause in the serenity of this place in the middle of nowhere.

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It turns out that today is the “fith day” and at 4 am, it felt like Billy Graham and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir were racing past our room in the Indy 500. So we got up and took a boat over to the market. It was worth the early morning rousing.

Friday, January 25, 2013
Inle Lake

The lack of sleep may have contributed to the other exciting adventure of the day, something already mentioned by Lora. We took a boat over to a small village called Indein. The draw is a beautiful pagoda on top of a hill behind the village, as well as a ride through long winding channels filled with water hyacinth. Our boatman leaves us on the riverbank at one end of the village and we walk to the other end where there is a half mile long arcade, lined on both sides with trinket vendors, leading up the hill to the pagoda. Half way up we see a profusion of small crumbling pagodas in the jungle off to one side. The scene could have been straight from Indiana Jones or Romancing the Stone, so we took a detour. Lora was absorbed in taking photos and I was absorbed in just poking around. I found a pagoda that I thought Lora would like and called to her. But she had disappeared and didn’t respond even when I called “Joan Wilder! Joan Wilder!”

I think the rule is that when you are lost, you stay where you are and let someone find you. After 15 minutes I gave up on that rule. I asked one of the vendors if she had seen an unaccompanied woman and she said “yes” and pointed up the arcade toward the main pagoda. Not realizing that she answers every tourist’s questions with “yes” I head up the arcade. After 10 minutes, I encountered a tourist coming down and figured that she must speak English because she looked exactly – EXACTLY – like Judy Dench. I asked her two questions: “Are you Judy Dench?” and “Have you seen this woman?”, showing her a photo of Lora on my phone. I’d like to think that she gave me an enigmatic smile to the first question, and she clearly said “no” to the second.

So I headed back down the hill to the boat, thinking that perhaps Lora had retreated to one place we both knew as a spot we had to meet up with each other. But of course, she wasn’t there either. I found our boatman, but how does one make a person who speaks nothing but Burmese comprehend that my wife is missing. A kindly vendor started speaking to him in Burmese. His eyes suddenly popped wide open and this man to whom the hotel had entrusted its honored guests went running up toward the arcade and pagoda. I tried to walk quickly in order to retain a sense of calmness but it was getting dark and all the vendors were packing their wares and leaving behind what was about to become a deserted tourist area. So I started running after our boatman until 2/3 of the way up the arcade we came upon a worried Lora making her way back from the pagoda.

She and I then retraced her steps up to the pagoda. It was worth the adventure. The best feature was around behind the pagoda where there were several dozen small stupas (“small” meaning 15’ tall) with intricately carved metal crowns from which a many small bells were hung. The overall effect in the breeze was an orchestra of tinkling bells that cast a magical feeling of serenity over the area.

Pagoda of the Tinkling Bells

Indein Pagoda

We traveled by long tail boat across Inle Lake and through a series of canals, under minimal bamboo footbridges, to reach the small village of Indei. According to our guide book, the village wasn’t noted for much beyond the local crafts people and a modest pagoda at the end of a long winding covered arcade.

David and I started up the arcade together but somehow got separated, something that happens now and then. That we couldn’t find each other for the better part of a hour wasn’t so usual. Not seeing him, I assumed that David had gone on ahead of me to the pagoda. In the dim light I thought several times that I spotted him ahead, so kept on only to find it was another tourist in a green REI hat. I made it to the top, repeatedly looking over my shoulder to see if perhaps he was behind me. I was enchanted by the gold crowned stupas festooned with hundreds of tiny bells that tinkled in the soft breeze, but any feelings of the joy of discovery were tempered by my concern over where my husband might be. Those of you familiar with the saga of David in the wine shop over Thanksgiving this past November will understand how I might be worried.

Thinking that he might be waiting for me back at the start of the arcade I turned around and began the 1/2 mile trek back down the dim and almost deserted passage. I was almost at the end when to my great relief there was our David, out of breath. He had raced from where we lost each other, down to the pier to call in the calvary (our boatman), and then back up to the arcade. He had been as panicked as I was. Apparently he’d been showing passers-by my photo on his phone, asking if they’d seen me. After a joyful reunion I told him he had to come up and see this special pagoda. So back up the shadowy arcade we went, each of us relieved of our worries.

I think that after the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon this is my very favorite. Set against a backdrop of crumbling ancient shrines is a forest of white and gold. The delicate music of the bells, the stupas with their tiaras of glistening golden lacework set against the setting sun, and the knowledge that I am well loved by a good man, combined to make this a place of gratitude as well as beauty.

Click on the link to see the pagoda and hear the bells.

Inle Lake

This place rocks – literally. Our little bungalow on stilts in Inle Lake sways a bit each time a long tail boat passes close enough to create a wake. Can any of you remember the TV show Adventures in Paradise starring that hunky Gardner McKay? If so, you’ll remember the little grass shacks with the thatch roofs where he used to seduce the local Polynesian beauties – or the rich heiress who had chartered the Tiki, and with it that tasty Adam Troy – and you can conjure up our little house on the water. For those too young to relate, here are some photos.

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Yes, that’s David Brody enjoying retirement and the idea that two lovely ladies are draping his bed with mosquito netting. However, since the temperature drops to the low 50’s at night we have seen neither hide nor hair of any mosquitos.

In an attempt to head off any complaints by hotel guests, there is a little notice in our room warning us that on market days (everyday, it seems is market day) we might hear the sound of long tail skiffs starting at 4am.

We might also hear ceremonial chanting from the nearby floating village. The skiffs, passing in a parade in the waterway right next to our bungalow, are powered by engines that sound like roaring lions, and the chanting is amplified by loud speakers. We are rocking and rolling here. Thus this post at 4am.

We hired a boat to take us to that very market – big and bustling – as well on a tour of the floating villages where there are canals instead of streets.

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We watched local craftspeople spinning beautiful cloth made from lotus fibers, a local boatyard where we learned that you too can own a long tail boat for only $300, shipping not included. I videotaped a young woman making cheroots and another one blessing her wares with the money we gave her to buy some trinkets.

Inle Lake Craftpeople video

Inle Lake is famous for the fishermen who stand in the back of their boats and use one leg to steer and paddle, leaving their hands free to cast nets. This iconic scene is photographed by everyone who comes here. I looked hard for a different take on it and finally saw a small boy steering his boat that way.

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Balloons Over Bagan

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Was it wildly expensive? Yes.

Did we have to rise and shine at 5am? Yes, indeed.

Was it mighty chilly before the sun rose over Bagan’s 3,000 temples and pagodas? You betcha.

Was it worth it? While it wasn’t as weirdly wonderful as our ride over the otherworldly land formations in Cappadoccia in Turkey (where we swooped low enough to practically touch the Penis Rocks, as Alan Frankel called them), it was quite a nice sun rise – the fiery orb rising from behind the low mountains, burning the mist off the fields and promising a summer day in the middle of January, a great bird’s eye view of what I’ve come to think of as Buddha’s houses. What was truly strange was our flying low, exhaling dragon’s breath of flames, over a neighborhood of seedy hotels and bamboo huts as we made our way toward the landing area (a large field). Most of the residents glanced up and with a ‘been there, seen that’ shrug went right back to work.

Baby Monk

Before I left on this journey I told myself that if I came home after four months with a dozen pictures I could be proud of, that would make me smile at the memory of taking them, I would consider the photography part of the trip a success. That “gotcha moment” doesn’t happen all that often, but it happened to me yesterday – 8 more shots to go.

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David’s impressions of Mandalay

A Quiet Sunday in Mandalay
click here for an up close and personal view.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

We disembark from the Amara at 8 am, heading for the Ayarwaddy Riverview Hotel. Moe Aye says that it is right “over there”, pointing to a spot a couple of hundred yards up the river, and he offers to take us there on the Amara’s little long-tail skiff. It turns out to be a 15-minute ride. Moe Aye stops at a place where the boats lining the shore are side-by-side in rows that are 5-6 deep. The bags stay on the skiff and we are escorted from boat to boat until we reach the shore. Gangplanks are laid from one boat to the next so we can get to shore.

We then walk another 15 minutes along the riverside road before we get to the hotel that was just “over there.” The bags that we had left on board the skiff have already arrived at the hotel when we finally get there. I’m left wondering why Moe Aye didn’t simply have us stay with the bags.

Getting from the hotel to the center of the city is a 15,000 kyat cab ride each way (total of around $35), so we hail a “trishaw” – a bicycle with a one-seat sidecar.

We negotiate 13,000 kyat for two trishaws for the full day, and probably could have gotten down to 10,000. I didn’t try since the difference is only around $3, an amount that is significant for the two kids we hire. The English-speaking kid (the other simply answered every question “yes”) is named Ko Re. He says that he is written up in Lonely Planet. We are skeptical until he shows us p. 223 of the current edition: “English-speaking drivers include eloquent Ko Re (koore6070@gmail.com for appointments.”

Ko Re takes us to the Mandalay Palace as our first stop (after a camera store about which Lora has written). It is vast, perhaps a square mile area that is walled and moated. Foreigners are permitted to enter only by the Eastern gate. Most of the interior is a military installation, but the palace itself is substantial structure. It is actually a recent reconstruction; almost everything within the square mile area was destroyed by Japanese bombings in the war.

On the way out of the palace grounds we see a military band practicing – clarinets, trumpets, trombones. They sound like a cross between Chinese opera and atonal modern music. The men are out of uniform and merely standing by the roadside with sheet music on their portable music stands. Lora tries to take a photo, but she is dissuaded by a soldier sitting nearby. He is holding a Kalashnikov, and his frown is not lessened by Lora’s sweet smiling request.

After the Palace, we’re inclined to call it quits for the afternoon since everyone has said one day is more than enough for seeing Mandalay and Lora’s back is hurting from the constant bumping of the ride. We tell Ko Re that we want to go back to the hotel and he heads in that direction. At the end of the mile-long wall of the Palace grounds he points in another direction and says something that I cannot hear. Lora nods her head and off we go in the other direction, ending up at another major pagoda that Ko Re thinks that we don’t want to miss, the Shwe Nan Daw Monastary. He’s right.

Our hotel is relatively high end and new construction, but curiously short on amenities. The bathroom tub has no hot water even after letting it run 15 minutes. Lora finally discovers that if the faucet handle is turned to the cold water direction, hot water appears after 20 minutes (even though the sink gets hot water when the faucet is turned to the traditional left direction for only 10 minutes). Also, there is a 6” high tile step extending from wall to wall alongside the tub, but with 4” gap between the step and the side of the tub. When I stepped back out of the tub I discover the true function of the step; it creates a moat into which water flowing off the tub deck falls, from whence it goes down a drain at one end of the moat. Also, electricity goes off periodically, as frequently as every five minutes during some periods. It’s the only place in the country where we have experienced this.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Ko Re and Suu Suu pick us up and we are off to the Teak Pagoda inside the Shwe In Bin Monastary. We travel along the river bank, which is essentially a shantytown that extends mile after mile with plastic bags and other trash lining the road.

We pass a boat yard on the river-side of the road. Piles of steel beams and steel sheets being cut and welded at the curbside, presumably to be carried down to the water for use in building or repairing boats.

Ko Re stops in an area that has acres of parked motorbikes jammed 20 deep against each other on one side of the road. The other side is a veritable town containing dusty streets jammed with stalls that sell jade. We (foreigners) have to pay $1 entrance fee to get into the market. There are jewelry makers in some of the stalls working with very small pieces of some sort of metal that they pound with small hammers and then heat with small gas torches, and then hammer again. Some of the pieces must be gold or other valuable metal because the same stall can have work done inside a chain link enclosure, as well as in the unenclosed area.

Most of the people milling around the jade market seem to be local, not foreigners, and we see them buying bracelets by the handful, first haggling a price and then sliding the entire collection into their bags. We assume that we are in a wholesale market and these people are shopkeepers from around the city.

Then on to the Teak Pagoda, a beautiful structure located deep within a large monastery area. It’s an elevated dark teak structure built 8’-10’ off the ground on an array of 24” diameter teak columns. The pagoda interior is surrounded by a balcony that accesses the interior through narrow doorways lining each side of the structure. Each door has intricately carved teak wood figures mounted on it.

Some of the carved figures seem worn and eroded so, once again, we are unsure whether we are looking at something old or a recent reconstruction of something that was old. In any event, the place has a wonderful serenity that is enhanced by a couple of Western visitors sitting on the floor of the surrounding balcony, enjoying the solitude of the place. We wander slowly around the pagoda for 15 minutes until the tranquility is broken by the arrival of a group of Koreans.

Ko Re takes us to the Mahamuni Buddha Temple. Outside the entrance is an area of marble carving shops, with a profusion of Buddha statues in front of each. Many of the statutes have an unformed head – simply a blank block of marble on top of the carved body.

Apparently the bodies are mass produced by lesser qualified carvers, and master carvers then carve the heads. There is a group of 5 men muscling a large blank-faced statue down a lane in the same way the slaves moved stone blocks to form the pyramids; they roll the statue over a few 4” diameter sticks of wood, quickly moving the last of the sticks to the front as the statue rolls over it. We watch as it takes them almost a half hour to move the statue about 50’. How do they ever run a business if it takes 5 men pushing a statue 5 years to deliver it to a customer that is only 5 miles away?

The Mahamuni Buddha Temple itself is imposing. There is long covered corridor of shops leading from the entry gate into the temple itself. Lots of ordinary stuff for tourists like fabrics, little carved Buddhas, holographic Buddhas, Buddhas with the LED auras. But there are some terrific shops like the one in which a craftsman is tuning gongs of various sizes. He sits on the floor with an xylophone in front of him, and he hits the gong and then the xylophone. After listenting to the difference in tone, he hammers the surface of the gong to reshape it slightly. And then he repeats the process. Over and over again.

As we enter the temple itself, we see signs of its being renovated as recently as 10 – 15 years ago, including repair of the actual statue of Buddha. Various stones in the wall are engraved with the name of donors who paid for the work, sometimes with the amount of their donations. It suddenly clicks that there may be a connection between all the renovations and reconstructions, the infinite number of stupas that we have seen since arriving in the country, and a point that Orwell kept making in his book. The evil Burmese magistrate U Po Kyin felt free to pursue all of his death-dealing schemes because he could still achieve a good afterlife by building many pagodas after he achieved his nefarious goal. If so, then it seems that Burmese Buddhism itself is part of the reason for the pervasive reconstruction and new construction.

The Buddha statue in the Mahamuni Temple is, in one sense, in continuous restoration and renovation. Men can pay for the privilege of adding a piece of gold leaf to the statue. So the Buddha just keeps getting fatter and fatter, leaf by leaf.

Women do not have the same opportunity to ensure a good afterlife for themselves. They are not even allowed to enter the section of the temple closest to the statue.

After the Mahamuni Temple, we tell Ko Re that we’re ready to go back to the hotel. However, he says that we should see Mandalay Hill, which is said to be a great place to see sunsets over the city. Lora allows him to talk her into going because it is pretty close. After another 15 minutes of cycling, Ko Re clarifies that Mandalay Hill is still 30 minutes away, in the opposite direction from the hotel. Lora declines the effort and Ko Re turns in another direction. Ten minutes later he stops in front of a long line of shops. There is much confusion until Lora realizes that the word Ko Re keeps repeating as he points to one shop is “massage”. Apparently Lora had used “sore back” as her excuse for declining the trip to Mandalay Hill, and Ko Re was being the consummate guide to preserve his place in Lonely Planet.

Monday, January 21, 2013

We leave the hotel for an early morning flight to Bagan. The airport is a very long drive out of the city. The driver says that it is so far from the city because the military government had built it as a military field and wanted it to be far away from everyone.

Driving is on the right side of the road, as in the U.S., but with steering wheels on the right side of the cars and trucks as in England. The guidebook says that the strange arrangement is the result of the military government’s decision to distance the country from its British colonial past by forcing everyone to drive on the right side of the road even though all the vehicles in the country had their steering wheels on the right side to accommodate the English system. Politics and nationalism can certainly create strange situations.

Flying out of Mandalay involves curious airport security procedures. All bags, including checked bags, carry-on bags and backpacks, go on a belt through typical carry-on scanner. The security people have no idea which bags are to be checked and which will be in the cabin, and our checked bags contain a couple of kitchen knives. But they all go through without anyone paying any attention. People go through the typical metal detector. There is no requirement for people to remove cell phones or any other metal objects from their pockets, so the detector goes off with each passing person and each passing person is simply waved on to the flight gates. It’s all sort of surreal.

What’s with the face paint?

Several of you have asked about the golden face paint you’ve seen in these photos. It’s called Thanaka that comes from the bark of the tanaka tree which is widely grown in upper Myanmar. Myanmar women (as well as girls and young boys) wear it to protect their skin from the sun and as a moisturizer and to keep skin young looking. You make a watery paste by rubbing a piece of the bark in a circular motion over a special smooth stone. It looks like this:

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It clearly works since women here have gorgeous skin well into old age.

Mandalay: a few more photos

Images from the Mahamuni Temple: women can’t visit the golden Buddha – they can only see it via a live TV feed. Being of the empowered sex, David was able to get some photos of the Buddha while I concentrated on the flow of people moving through the compound. I particularly loved the women carrying small restaurants on their heads as well as the monk checking the live feed. The light was particularly beautiful here – the little girl’s dress was as golden as the Buddha and (for me) far more accessible.

The very bottom photo was taken at the factory where gold is pounded into thin sheets by strong men with consequently awesome builds.

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